Sometime tonight between the roses, the Champagne and the chocolates, couples across the U.S. and elsewhere will sit down to an intimate Valentine's Day dinner, stare soulfully into each other's eyes and perhaps take a moment to ponder a perennial question: Can this mad, mad love last?
Whether they're in the heady throes of their fifth date or their 20th year of marriage, the answer, according to a recent study published in the online journal Social Cognitive and Effective Neuroscience, lies more in the neural patterns of their brains than in the poetry of their heart-shaped valentines.
In the study, Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron at Stony Brook University in New York and two co-authors set out to investigate the age-old question that has baffled so many: Can the intense, heady head-over-heels romantic love experienced in the first flush of a relationship endure over time?
To attempt to find out, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of 10 women and seven men who claimed they were still "madly" in love with their spouse, even after an average of 21 years of marriage. Each viewed a picture of his or her beloved, and control pictures, including a close friend and lesser-known acquaintances. Brain activity was measured as participants looked at the facial images.
The researchers then compared these brain scans with those of people from an earlier experiment who said they'd fallen in love within the past year. They found the scans looked a lot alike.
"For some, when they look at their partner, it looks almost as if their brain is on fire," said Acevedo.
The VTA -- which is a crucial part of the brain's motivation and reward circuit -- also illuminates in response to food, money, alcohol and cocaine.
The dopamine-laden VTA had already shown activity in six previous studies of those in early-stage love -- in relationships ranging from three weeks to 17 months -- but the Stony Brook study was the first to ever associate the VTA with long-term love. Acevedo and Aron take this as evidence that romantic love can endure.
"A lot of times all we hear is our relationships are painful, and we suffer," said Acevedo. "But it's exciting to see there's a pattern in our brain that is associated with intense love," and that it appears in the long-in-love and the newly-in-love. "Love can last," said Acevedo." It doesn't wane. It doesn't disappear."
The researchers also believe their study offers clues as to what may be essential brain activity for couples to stay in love.
"It's a nice finding, because it shows in a way our brain is still a simple thing," said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at UCLA medical school who was not involved in the study. "Humans are so good at using sophisticated language to dissect emotions. But if we look at the way big systems in the brain respond, they seem to be much simpler than our behavior. The responses of the brain can be quite predictable."
So much for love's mysteries.